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Visiting Fukushima

Speeches in Parliament
Scott Ludlam 23 Aug 2012

Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (19:09): I rise to make some brief remarks and I will commence with the news which is on the wires this afternoon that BHP Billiton has shelved its proposed expansion of what would have been the world's largest uranium mine and the largest excavation on the surface of the earth. Obviously there is a lot of chatter and analysis around at the moment about why it has done that. It seems to relate mostly to falling commodity prices and the fact that this gargantuan project was always going to be very difficult for the company to get across the line.

One of the aspects of it, though, that has perhaps escaped analysis thus far is the collapse of the world uranium price since the disaster on 11 March last year at the Fukushima-Daiichi plant along Japan's Pacific coast. I cannot help but imagine that that must have played some part in the decision by BHP to shelve this project, but I have wanted to know for a very long time, whether it is the Roxby expansion or the Ranger mine in the Northern Territory, what happens to our uranium when it leaves. Where does it go? It is a question that I wish more Australians would ask. It is a question that I wish more politicians would ask because, of course, we see the dollar signs but we very rarely take heed of the danger signs.

In the interests of finding out where our uranium ends up, I travelled during the winter break and spent a few days in Tokyo and three days in Fukushima prefecture, between Fukushima city, which lies about 60 kilometres from the reactor complex, and coastal towns to the north of the plant. I found where our uranium goes. Some of it is in the form of caesium, which is a fission product, so it is effectively a broken uranium atom that has been cracked into an uneven and radioactive fragment by neutron bombardment inside a nuclear power plant. Quite a lot of the uranium from Australia appeared to be in the soil in a field that I visited on the edge of a dead village formerly known as Itate. When I was there, work crews of a couple of dozen or so in plastic masks and clean suits were working earthmoving equipment slowly through this field, stripping the top 50 centimetres of soil, bagging it in black plastic and containing it under blue tarpaulins. I have no idea where that material was headed or even why they were doing it.

Some of the uranium from Australia we even found in the form of caesium in Keiko Sasaki's lounge room in Fukushima city, where the ambient radiation levels are two or three times what they would be in this chamber or in an ordinary environment anywhere in Australia. This caesium is now part of the subliminal background radiation which these people who were not evacuated will have to live with for as long as they stay in their homes.

Some of that uranium from Australia is now buried under a small hill in a park in Minamisoma. This is a city on the coast that was not as badly hit by the fallout from the Fukushima plant as some places that were evacuated. It was terribly damaged by the tsunami that washed through on 11 March, instantly killing 19,000 people. That uranium buried under the hill, now in the form of caesium and other fission products, is the result of 16 or 17 months of work in which the city authorities and the local people, conducting their own radiation monitoring, have stripped the topsoil from that park. They have sandblasted the bark from the trees and they have buried the contaminated waste under a small hill in their park because they were worried that their kids had now had 16 months without being able to play outside. They balanced the risks of long-term chronic radiation exposure with the risks of vitamin D deficiency, depression and the lack of outdoor exercise.
Some of that uranium from Australia is in the fish. Some of it is in the food and fresh produce which can now no longer be put onto the market. Some of it is in the horticultural produce. These industries have been destroyed right across the prefecture. After a lot of time spent with the local people I discovered that that was obviously a result of the disaster that overtook Tohoku on 11 March. The wave height at the point where it crossed the coast at the Fukushima-Daiichi plant was 14 metres, more than twice the size of the seawall that the Japanese utility Tepco had built to protect the plant. Although two of the operators were killed instantly in the impact, the rest of them then had to contend with a plant that had had all its power knocked out. So, although the reactors had closed down, as designed, one hour before the disaster, the remaining residual decay heat, even of the closed down reactors, was high enough to melt the fuel and set off hydrogen explosions in all four plants that then blew the containment buildings apart and left those crews contending with, quite literally, a worst-case scenario in which they would have had to pull back and let the disaster run its course. Had they done that, as Prime Minister Naoto Kan revealed some months later, the Japanese would have had to evacuate the northern half of Honshu Island, including greater Tokyo, a population of around 30 million.

That is how close they came. The Prime Minister stormed into Tepco headquarters on 15 March, just four days after the disaster, with three of the plants in full meltdown and demanded that Tepco keep their staff on site and do everything that they could to keep the melted reactor piles covered in seawater lest that worst-case scenario take place.

Millions of Japanese right across the country, not just those in the impact area, are now aware that, but for a different fall of the dice, they would have lost their country. The Prime Minister last September told journalists:

It was a crucial moment when I wasn't sure whether Japan could continue to function as a state.

That stuff came from here; it came from Australia. I will not be shedding any tears tonight about BHP's dilemma in terms of their proposed expansion of the world's largest uranium mine.
I was also very fortunate to attend the launch of the Japanese Greens, and that is something I think quite closely mirrors the history of the party here in Australia. We are a global party. We have members in regional and national assemblies around the world and our footprint in South and East Asia is growing all the time. In Japan we are being seen as the answer to a political system that is simply paralysed. The nuclear industry is now openly referred to as the nuclear mafia. It is being treated as a self-interested and extremely dangerous organised crime syndicate with very deep roots that go right to the base of Japanese society.

I attended the largest demonstration of my entire life on the streets of Tokyo in which the people effectively took back the streets and are hoping to take back their country. The Japanese are a patient people, and their patience has run out. Things have changed. I was proud to be a part of the launch of the Japanese Greens. It will cost them something in the order of A$60,000 for every single candidate that they put into the field simply to lodge the nomination forms to take part in national elections. I believe they can do it, and they know what is at stake and how difficult it is going to be to break into the entrenched power structures that have prevailed in Japan in the postwar era and have now brought their country to the brink of ruin.

But for another tectonic act of random and cruel misfortune, they still could lose their country because in unit 4, which was the plant that was not operating at the time of the tsunami impact, more than 1,500 spent fuel rods are perched quite precariously in a building that has been severely compromised. So I hope that the Roxby uranium expansion joins Jabiluka, Arkaroola, Koongarra, Angela Pamela and Toro's doomed Wiluna project as one of the uranium mines that never was and must never be.

I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the people who showed me around, took me through the contaminated zones and down to the coast, and also to the Japanese Greens, who now have such a task ahead of them-nonetheless, I know they are up to it. My deep thanks are from here to you in Japan: to Koriyama Masaya; Akira Kawasaki; Meri Joyce, one of our own from Melbourne; Sasaki Keiko, in whose lounge room I learnt firsthand exactly what it means to live in an area that was not subject to evacuation; Matsumoto Namiho; Rikiya Adachi; and Mr and Mrs Murakami, who told us what it was like on the afternoon of the tsunami that flattened their entire neighbourhood and killed everyone in the district completely out of the blue. They told us their story of what it is like to live in temporary accommodation centre not too far from Minamisoma where they have effectively rebuilt a traditional Japanese village as a community of reciprocity and care while they wait for their resettlement.

I wish BHP well and I wish that BHP would take a look at the writing on the wall and tune its investments more towards the gigantic abundance of free energy that is falling from the sky every single day. Colleagues, there are better ways of shunting electrons down wires than nuclear fission reactors. I thank the chamber.

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